Friday 10 July 2009

"You can have my...when you pry it out of my cold, dead hands"

One of the, shall we say, unusual things about being in this line of work is that you develop stronger-than-is-healthy bonds to particular bits and pieces of technology, both hardware and software. For example, I think that anybody who's worked on a Mac as their main system for a year or so would take a catastrophic productivity hit if they were required to work in a Windows-only environment. Further, I assert, based on experience and observation, that this hit would actually increase in severity commensurate with previous Windows experience, as the nature of the problems and hassles encountered on a continuous basis would be that much more familiar.

But, believe it or not, this isn't a hit piece on Windows. If anything, Mac OS X takes the brunt here, in more or less a continuation of a previous post.

Don't get me wrong. The Mac itself is still one of the very few things I'd plug into that quote in the title. But the differences between it and the BSD Unix heritage it's based on, at an architecture-implementation level, sometimes drive me up the wall; it's as though I'm caught in the old Saturday Night Live "It's a floor wax AND a dessert topping!" skit.

Case in point: the Web developer's Swiss Army Ginsu Knife, PHP. On Unix and Linux systems, it's very straightforward to build a scripting engine that contains just the features and extensions needed, with security and debugging features added in to taste. The last few releases have even made that process humanly feasible for Windows usees. On Mac OS X, however, it's a different story entirely. (Item: As of Friday 11 July, the search "mac php configuration" returned some 5.22 million hits. Applying Sturgeon's Second Law to this leaves us with at least half a million pleas for and/or offers of help.)

The practical result is that, on Mac OS X, one uses one of the various prebuilt binaries for PHP (from Apple, MacPorts, MAMP or similar — or goes without. If you're interested enough in PHP to want it to work on a Mac, you probably have some urgent deadline breathing down your neck; you don't have time to figure out how/why there are unique runes and incantations involved in making it work. This is the dark flip side of "almost everything Just Works"; the things that don't Just Work tend to average the entire experience out.

So, what's the most efficient solution for the reasonably serious Mac-loving Web developer? Simple: max out the memory in your Mac (and I do mean "as much as Steve&Co let you put in and not one byte less, blastit!"). Then, add one of the software tools that's going to be on that Mac somebody pries out of my "cold, dead hands"; VMWare Fusion. Once you have Fusion installed, grab an ISO image of your BSD version or Linux distro of choice, install it, and use that for your PHP and other web-dev activities.

Better still, you can still use your fave Mac editor, browser and so on during development in the VM; you'll want to set up ssh on your VM, and then use sshfs to mount your Linux/BSD filesystem as a disk volume in your Mac. From that point — a file is a file is a file; you're just taking advantage of the *ix VM's tools. This is how I do my PHP 5.3 and PHP 6 testing now.

And, after going through all this extra effort, you may well pray that the new version of Mac OS X enables a better native solution. I know I do.

Nothing is perfect in this world, and all technologies have speed bumps in some fashion. The good bad thing about OS X is that there aren't nearly as many as in some other systems I could name — but when you hit the ones that are there, you hit them hard.

EDITED 2010/11/03: At the time this was originally written, there was a prerelease bit of software that lots of people, including the vendor and the opportunistic authors and publisher of at least one programming book, thought was going to eventually become PHP version 6. Not quite; one of the long-promised features for PHP 6 went down a rabbit hole and ultimately killed the whole thing. Most of the usable "PHP 6" features were incorporated into version 5.3.2.

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